What regrets do you have? Although I’ve heard that we should live with no regrets, I suspect we all have a list. Regrets invade our thoughts, occupy our minds, and keep us thinking about the things we wish we had done differently. But there may be ways to barricade your mind and stop ruminating about your regrets.
To understand how to stop ruminating about your regrets, we first must understand which regrets we’re most likely to continue thinking about. Sometimes we regret our actions – the things we’ve said and done. Other times we regret our inactions – our failures to do or say something. When reflecting back on regrets, people are more likely to ruminate on inactions than actions (Savitsky, Medvec, & Gilovich, 1997). People ruminate more when thinking about something that they didn’t do but could have done. Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I finish my education? Why didn’t I apply for that job? Why didn’t I ask her out? Savitsky and colleagues also found that people can more easily remember regrets of inaction than regrets of action.
They argued that regrets of inaction were more often in mind because people felt these situations were unfinished or incomplete. These are actions and thoughts that we didn’t finish. We thought about them we considered doing something. But we didn’t do anything. People tend to remember incomplete events better than completed events (a phenomenon called a Zeigarnik effect). We may ruminate on regrets of inaction because we can easily remember these incomplete actions. We keep replaying the ‘what ifs’ though our thoughts.
When we act, in contrast, we finish an event. We may, of course, regret the things we’ve said and done. It may not have been the right or best action, but it did finish the event. Doing something, doing anything provides a sense of closure. When you ruminate over a conversation or argument, for example, what aspects come to mind? From the closure perspective, you’re more likely to continue thinking about your missed opportunities. You continue thinking about what you should have said.
A sense of closure is intimately tied to feelings of regret (Beike, Markman, & Karadogan, 2009). But closure, the sense that something feels complete, isn’t determined only by your actions and inactions. Closure is the psychological experience of being finished with an event. You can do something, but you can still feel that an event isn’t finished. And even when you fail to act or say something, you may nonetheless feel a sense of closure for an event. Beike and her colleagues have argued that regrets feel stronger when people don’t feel closure – when people feel that an event isn’t finished, isn’t behind them, and isn’t understood. Missed past opportunities often have this feeling of being unfinished. We ruminate about what we should have and could have done.
I don’t think it’s possible to live without regrets. But if you want to feel less regret for your actions and inactions, then closure may be the key to lock the gates of your mind against rumination. Sometimes you can find a current or future action that will change the past. When people see clear future opportunities, they often feel less regret for past events (Beike et al., 2009). But even without a chance for future action, you may still be able to find psychological closure. Instead of ruminating over the event and your failure to act, change your thoughts. Think about how you’ve changed or grown. Find a re-appraisal of that past event. Think about the person you’ve become. Re-appraising the past may be an effective tool for leading to a sense of closure. Finding a sense of closure may decrease involuntary and intrusive thoughts of past regrets (in another post, I’ve suggested another method to control your intrusive thoughts). If you can’t live with ‘no regrets’, then at least re-appraise the past to forestall rumination.